Moncton — The people of the Hub City want one of their oldest and most beloved landmarks to receive the international attention they say it deserves: recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The site in question? A parking lot in the city’s downtown.
Local historians and asphalt aficionados say the otherwise unassuming space at the south end of Robinson Street — north of the skate park and south of Wize Guyz tavern — represents the very essence of Moncton and must be preserved.
“Some people think it’s not good for a city to have so many parking lots all over its downtown, but if it’s a bad thing then why are they so popular?” asks campaign organizer Colin Stevens.
Stevens said the parking lot dates back to 1855, the same year Moncton was incorporated as a town. Local legend states that the clerk who filed the original paperwork was so exhausted from having to walk three blocks from the lot to the old courthouse that he misspelled “Monckton” upon his arrival. As a result of that error and the embarrassment it caused, local politicians swore no Monctonian would be forced to walk for more than seven minutes ever again. The years that followed are widely considered a golden era of city centre parking lot construction in Canada.
“We want to make sure that history doesn’t get brushed aside in the name of ‘progress,’” Stevens said.
The grassroots campaign started when the federal government launched a call for nominations for Canada’s next set of candidates for World Heritage Sites. The government is inviting communities to nominate the country’s “most exceptional places” as a way to celebrate the country’s heritage ahead of the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.
Some experts say the parking lot fits that criteria.
“When you look at it, large surface parking lots have always been essential to the Moncton way of life, especially the main cultural centres,” said Louise MacMichael, heritage officer for the City of Moncton. “The mall, the Costco, the Coliseum, even the Rolling Stones concert back in 2005, they all involve cars parked as far as the eye can see.”
But the construction of the new downtown event centre, Downing Street plaza and other developments are putting the very existence of the core’s parking lots in jeopardy. All that change is creating either a sense of excitement and dread on Main Street, depending on who you talk to.
“It seems like there’s finally some positive momentum around here,” Luc LeBlanc said of the projects. “Hopefully Moncton’s downtown won’t just be parking lots forever.”
But others say surface parking is what makes Moncton the place it is and that identity should be protected.
“Seeing an entire city block covered in concrete — or better yet, gravel — right in the middle of town just makes me so proud to be from here,” a misty-eyed Mike Melanson said. “It makes my heart swell up at the sight of it. My pulmonary embolism does that too, because I never walk anywhere.”